23 February 2008

on the set: tarragon tomato soup + grilled cheese

It's one of the last days of shooting on the set of The Tell-Tale Heart here in Lee, New Hampshire. I've been serving hot soup to the cast and crew at least once a day, as they're spending their time inside and outside of an old abandoned house, with very little or no heat, and nothing's better than a nice bowl of soup to get over being so chilly! This time around, lunch was 'just like mom used to make'. I made grilled cheese, grilled ham and cheese, chocolate oatmeal chocolate chip walnut cookies, a green salad, and non-dairy tarragon scented tomato soup.

It was lovely to see people's faces light up when they came in and saw this spread. The director's brother Max, one of the production assistants, said to me, 'This is the best tomato soup I've ever had.' Now you can try it for yourself...

Recipe: Tarragon Tomato Soup
The fresh tarragon in this recipe really makes this soup happen. It adds a distinct sweetness and a faint fennel/anise flavor that puts a lovely twist on a classic. I think it can be a challenge to keep tomato soup from tasting like tomato sauce. Too often tomato soup has loads of butter, cream, or other heavy dairy to make the soup ‘creamy’. I didn’t understand this, as most soup, when you puree it, is already creamy, but maybe that’s just me. I’m sure this splash would be magnificent with a dollop of crème fraiche, or a splash of cream towards the end of cooking, if that’s your thing, but personally, I like to keep it simple. Though I will say, this soup goes mighty fine with a grilled cheese sandwich.

Serves 4-6
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or mix of olive oil and butter
1 large onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 small dried bay leaf
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, divided
1/4 to 1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh basil leaves (optional)
3 15 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
2 cups water or stock
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a pot and add in the onions. Sweat these for about 1 minute (if the onions begin to brown, turn down your heat). Then add in the garlic, the bay leaf, half of the tarragon, and all of the basil (if using) and sweat together for another minute or two.

2. Add in the crushed tomatoes and mix well. Stir in the water. Bring to a gentle boil and immediately turn the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Test for salt and pepper and adjust as necessary. Stir in the remaining tarragon. With an immersion blender (or carefully, in batches in a standing blender), blend the soup until smooth. For an extremely smooth soup, pass the puree through a chinois or fine mesh strainer.

3. Feel free to enjoy with a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream. Or a grilled cheese sandwich.

18 February 2008

new hampshire, day 1

So I am finally here in snowy Lee, New Hampshire where filming is just beginning this evening. I have been here for a couple of days getting acclimated to the kitchen I'm using, as well as getting to know some of the core cast and crew. Everyone is really lovely and friendly and eager to be helpful. It's a cute and small farm town and everything is covered with a nice thick layer of snow, which looks so pretty from the windows and the roads. It's even fun to walk in. I hope to make a snow-creature soon!

This is a unique situation for me...namely, navigating steep driveways and stairways, which up until this afternoon, thanks to warm temperatures and rain, have been mostly coated in sheets of ice. Making for nerve-wracking treks with bags, boxes, and armloads of food. But so far, so good, the only mishap I've had was earlier today when I slipped and fell on a patch of ice while walking to the car. Luckily, I wasn't carrying anything at all. I always find it a bit comical to fall on the ice. It's very cartoonish, because your feet slip up from under you and fly into the air, as you fall on your butt.

Working on a film set in an old boarded up house can make for some interesting challenges-- most pertinently, heat, water, and electricity. Not to mention that a shoot schedule is a 12-hour workday, that for these first few days begin at 5pm. But the crew is working hard to make it a relatively comfortable and manageable situation for everyone involved, and I am hoping that warm food in everyone's bellies will keep them happy and hard at work.

The core of the organization putting on this production (Palehorse Productions) are all from this small town and as they are non-profit, are looking to cut costs at every turn and the community really has pulled through in a lot of ways-- including donating the bulk of the food that I'm using to cook the meals for the cast and crew of 20-25 over a 10-day period. It's really amazing and lovely.

Today's first meal ('lunch' at 4pm) was a simple green salad with veggies and a homemade carrot-miso dressing; steamed rice; and soy-glazed baked chicken and tofu.
For our 11pm dinner, I'm serving a melange of some leftovers of baked ziti, vegetarian with squash or non-veggie with Italian sausage, Mexican Chicken soup, and some cold cuts for sandwiches.

But as I left the set earlier, to come back to the house where I am staying and cooking to take a break before preparing dinner, I was observing all of the hubbub of excitement and anxiety of everyone involved, and it made me feel re-energized about taking on this project, and happy to be involved with something so unique and special.

16 February 2008

kitchen ninjas!

Last month, my good friend, and award-winning filmmaker, Jef Greilich produced and shot a 6-minute pilot for a web cooking show starring me and my ‘sidekick’ Yoshi Kono. It was just pitched to OnNetworks.com, but while we’re waiting to hear back from them, watch the episode!

14 February 2008

Chef Aja T. Marsh News - February Newsletter

What’s that smell? Is it all the love in the air? I hope so!
As the much beleaguered Valentine’s Day rolls around, I would like to take a moment to talk about how we can translate and incorporate the love we have for ourselves and those closest to us, into a love for our bodies, communities, and earth. To me, living a healthy and loving lifestyle is more than just about what I eat—it’s about thinking critically about what I choose to put into and around my body, and how those choices affect the world around me—as well as nourishing me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Supporting Local Businesses
Unfortunately it is getting more and more difficult to support locally owned small businesses in suburban areas, especially grocery stores, and increasingly in urban areas. However, by shopping and dining at local establishments you are supporting your community’s economy, as well as encouraging entrepreneurial enterprises where you can interact with owners who are passionate about their business, versus having impersonal experiences at large chain stores. By nurturing your community in this way, your neighborhood becomes richer with your investment economically and socially and you can build relationships with the people you live and work among.

Buying Local Produce
There are farmer’s markets in most cities across the country, as well as seasonal u-pick or farm stands on city outskirts, which could make for a fun weekend activity with your friends or family. You could also participate in a C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture) which offers you weekly allotments of food currently being harvested by the farm, usually in exchange of light farm work and a reasonable fee for the season. By getting produce from your area, you will be eating only what is in season and in harmony with the earth, as well as getting food that allows the farmers a living wage and isn’t shipped thousands of miles—therefore also reducing its environmental impact. FarmersMarket.com has a searchable database of markets across the U.S.

Shopping Green [see the blog I just posted about it!]
It’s easy to start. Bring your own bags. Don’t bag your produce unless absolutely necessary. Buy in bulk. Reduce your overall packaging usage. Carpool to the grocery store with a friend or neighbor.

Living Compassionately for You, Your Family, and The Earth
Instead of spraying all kinds of chemicals around your house to make it smell or look good, look into non-toxic and natural cleaning products. This is especially important if you have children, pets, allergies, or sensitive skin. Why wash the dishes you eat off of with chemicals? Baking soda and vinegar, for example, make a great all purpose abrasive cleanser and disinfectant. Buy cruelty-free products that haven’t been tested on animals. Drink Fair-Trade and Organic coffees and teas. Dry your clothes outside, and use the power of the sun to bleach your clothes. Purchase recycled toilet paper and paper towels. Recycle everything you can. Reuse containers. Compost. Care2 has pretty comprehensive information and tips on their GreenLiving page as does TreeHugger

One of the projects I was working on in January was to recreate the recipe for Cookie Monster’s cookies. Yes, you read right. You know the cookies he scarfs so jubilantly into his mouth on ‘Sesame Street’? Well, they have a new recipe for those now. While they are made entirely of real food ingredients, they aren’t anything that would be especially tasty to your or I. But Cookie Monster loves them. I look forward to meet him soon! Stay tuned to the blog for that!

On Friday, I will be heading to New Hampshire to cater my friends’ movie shoot, and when I return to NYC at the end of the month, I’ll be working freelance with one of my favorite catering companies in NYC – Fancy Girl Catering.

I'm also working to post more frequently here on Stem+Leaf and would love to hear more from you! Leave comments, let me know if you tried any of the recipes, etc.! I want to provide content that you will enjoy.

Kitchen Ninjas!: Last month, my good friend, and award-winning filmmaker, Jef Greilich produced and shot a 6-minute pilot for a web cooking show starring me and my ‘sidekick’ Yoshi Kono. It was just pitched to OnNetworks.com, but while we’re waiting to hear back from them, you can check out the pilot episode here.

Guest Blogger Opportunities: I am still looking for interested individuals to write guest blogs for Stem+Leaf about green and healthy-lifestyle related subjects, from your own perspective. No need to be an experienced writer-- just enthusiastic with something to say! Please contact me for more information. [Sabrina Hu had her guest blog posted earlier this month, discussing the holistic winter cleanse she did through her yoga studio in Atlanta, GA].

Be well, share love, and live fully today and everyday!

13 February 2008

being a greener shopper

Sometime last year I read this fact on a wall at grocery store: “Every year the U.S. produces enough plastic film [in the form of plastic grocery and produce bags, etc.] to shrink wrap the state of Texas.” Quite frankly, that freaked me out. While it’s not exactly surprising, to hear it put that way was pretty impacting and got me to thinking about more ways we can be ‘greener’ shoppers. And not just at the grocery store, where we might think about it most, but also in our runs to the general stores, clothing stores, and anywhere where we leave with more than we came with.

We are a culture obsessed with over-packaging (as evidence by the photo above, taken at the corner deli), everything come pre-packaged for our convenience, in tissue paper, a box, and a bag with more tissue paper. We haul around over-sized carrier bags from shops, each yielding small items that could easily be fit into one bag. And what happens when we get these things home? Things get thrown away, or maybe reused once or twice. If we’re really on top of our game, they get recycled. But would it be better to avoid having all the excess bags in the first place?

In the post-An Inconvenient Truth days, it’s especially chic and sexy to be green, so use that social trendiness as your inspiration to incorporate more
earth-friendly habits into your routine. Many of us recycle, but beyond that, you
can make your trips to the grocery store and beyond more environmentally friendly.

bring your own bags
Reuse bags from what you’ve hoarded over the past few months, or purchasing reusable bags made of canvas or other material. Most grocery stores sell inexpensive bags near the checkout, or you can have some fun shopping around for bag that reflects your personality. Keep them in your car or day bag so you always have them handy. And even if you’re just quickly popping into any store, refuse the extra packaging when possible- stores always appreciate you saving them time and money by not wasting another bag or box. You’ll generally find you can live without having another bag to carry around. And if you’re just going from store to car to house anyway, the bags are hardly necessary.

Websites like ecobags.com and reusablebags.com sell a lot of neat bags made from materials like organic cotton and hemp, and other recycled material.

don’t bag your produce
As a country, we use and waste a lot of plastic bags (among many other things). And for a product that does not biodegrade and is not commonly recyclable, we certainly abuse them. Several countries across the world have banned their use (incl. China, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Taiwan) or imposed per-bag taxes (Ireland). Plastic bag waste, and plastic waste in general, has detrimental effects on wildlife, and the environment, not to mention the petroleum used to manufacture (and import/export/ship) them.

Many produce items come wrapped in their own packaging, courtesy of Mother Nature. So, with the exception perhaps of fragile, wet, or especially dirty produce, do your best not to put everything into plastic bags. It’s simply not necessary. For the short trip from the market to your kitchen, where the bags will only be discarded.

For stores like Central Market where the customers weigh and price their own produce, I like to print the stickers and adhere them all to one plastic bag or a piece of paper for the cashier to ring up as I checkout. Having done this several times, I have been commended on the idea by the cashiers.

ask for support, be encouraging
While cities like San Francisco and Austin have imposed mandatory or voluntary no-plastic bag actions, you can make a difference in your home town or local shops by talking to store owners and managers about reducing their waste, recycling, and encouraging customers to bring their own bags or to use fewer bags. These are the people who have the power to make a difference, and one of their main motives is to keep the customers happy by giving them what they demand. And by encouraging your friends and family to be greener shoppers, the word will spread further than your initial reach, and as far as shopping green goes, that can only be good news.

12 February 2008

green valentine's ideas from treehugger

I took a little help from TreeHugger.com on this one. They have a great listing of various kinds of gifts, from the cute and innocent, to the philanthropic, to the sexy and naughty. Something for everyone! Take a look at their original postings...
Green Valentine's Day 2008
Green Your Valentine's Day

11 February 2008

a birthday gift of ‘fruity snowstorm carrot pecan cake’

A few days ago was my friend’s birthday, and last week I asked what he wanted. He asked “Who makes the best carrot cake in New York?” Well, knowing he’s very health conscious and ingredient focused, I thought about how cream-cheese goopy and sugary most carrot cakes are and replied. “I will make you a carrot cake.”

We discussed what he wanted in his cake, and decided it would be vegan, with raisins, ginger, chocolate chips, and nuts. I suggested a coconut milk frosting to top it off. This is a no-holds-barred cake using all organic ingredients.

I’ve never actually made a carrot cake from scratch before, except for once at a catering company I freelance for, so it was a new adventure. I was hoping to score their recipe, but wasn’t able to get in touch with them, so I did some research for all kinds of carrot cake recipes, combined some ideas and inserted my own.

It took a bit longer to make this cake than I anticipated—there are a lot of steps between combining the dry ingredients, grating the ginger and carrots, beating the sugar and ‘eggs’ together, and actually mixing everything together and baking it, letting it cool, and making the frosting and applying it to the cake. Phew! A few hours of combined effort, but it’s a labor of love.

It came out a bit denser and darker than I anticipated, and the ginger and orange in it were not as strong as I was hoping for, but it was tasty and well received by all. Probably a carrot cake you have never had before. Try it out!

Recipe: Fruity Snowstorm Carrot Pecan Cake
My friend named it this because of the way the free-form frosting was sort of melting over the sides looked as if it had been hit with a snowstorm.

2 1/4 Organic All-purpose Flour
2 teaspoons Baking Soda
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 tablespoon Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon Cloves
1/2 teaspoon Allspice

1 cup Organic Sugar
3-egg equivalent of Ener-g Egg Replacer

3/4 cup melted Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil (could use Organic Canola instead)
1/4 cup Organic Grade ‘B’ Maple Syrup
1 teaspoon Organic, Fair-Trade Vanilla Extract
1 cup Organic, Unsweetened Soy Milk
juice from 1 orange (about 1/3-1/2 cup)

2 1/2 cups grated Organic Carrots (about 4-5 medium large carrots)
3 tablespoons grated Organic Ginger (3-4” piece)
3 teaspoons Organic Orange zest (2-3 oranges)
1/3 cup Organic Raisins
1/2 cup Organic, vegan Chocolate Chips
1 cup Organic Pecans, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.

2. In a large bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. In the bowl of an electric mixer or a mixing bowl, beat together the sugar and egg-replacer mixture until fluffy.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the coconut oil, maple syrup, vanilla, soy milk, and orange juice. Then add in the beaten sugar mixture. Fold in the carrots, ginger, zest, raisins, chocolate chips, and 2/3 cup of the pecans.

4. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and fold until combined. Do not over mix. If it still seems a little dry, add in a bit more orange juice or soy milk until a pourable, but thick batter is formed.

5. Pour the cake batter into a lightly greased 9-inch cake pan, or two 2 8-inch cake pans if you want to make a layer cake. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

6. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 1 hour before frosting.

Recipe: Coconut Milk Frosting
Makes about 4 cups
This frosting also makes a great vegan substitute for whipped cream that requires little additional sweetening and offers a light coconut flavor.

2 cans chilled Organic Coconut Milk (Full-Fat only)
3-4 tablespoons Organic Agave Nectar, to taste
2 teaspoons Organic, Fair-Trade Vanilla Extract

1. Chill the bowl and whisk attachment of an electric stand mixer in the freezer for 15-30 minutes.

2. Open the cans of coconut milk and transfer the semi-solid white fat that has risen to the top to the chilled mixing bowl. Discard the liquid.

3. Add in the agave and vanilla. Beat the mixture on high speed for about 5 minutes, until fluffy. Frost your cake or keep chilled until use.

4. You may want to chill your cake after frosting it to keep this frosting from melting off (as it will do, if it is kept in too warm of a place).

Note: You can also make this with a hand mixer though it may not come out as fluffy.

05 February 2008

bacon biscuit breakfast happy fun time

On Sunday morning, I went where many of my friends and family might not think I dare to tread. I ate bacon. I not only ate it, I shopped specifically for it, and cooked it-- in all of its greasy glory.

It all started with a photo from the cover of this month's Gourmet, showing a plate toppling over with perfect-looking buttermilk biscuits. Couple that with an always present, but quiet and subdued craving for bacon, and there was no stopping me.

Hoping to find some nice, local, happy pig bacon at the Union Square Greenmarket, I looked for it there on Saturday, and despite not beating the early morning crowds, I managed to snag one of Hawthorne Valley Farm's very last packages of bacon (there was only one left after me). I was also grateful to find some real buttermilk made from organic, grass-fed cow's milk, at the market that day, too-- excellent for biscuit making.

Having looked forward to this special breakfast all week, I woke up Sunday morning feeling gleeful and ready to begin! I got to work on the buttermilk biscuits, using an altered version of the recipe found in the magazine (my version below). Their traditional Southern recipe called for lard as the fat, but despite my excitement about the bacon, I'd rather not use lard, or it's Crisco-y commercial counterpart. I substituted organic, virgin coconut oil instead. With the biscuits in the oven, I heated up a pan and threw in the very thickly cut bacon slices ($7+ for 6 pieces!) and let them do their thing. I already had some local farm-fresh eggs in the fridge, so I started putting those together with some salt and pepper for an easy scramble.

Everything was soon completed and on the table, along with a salad to cut the grease (and the guilt) of this breakfast. I only managed to get down 2 pieces of bacon, but it was delicious, as were the coconut-scented biscuits which I loaded up with butter, grape jam, and/or raw honey. This meal took me to a happy, sticky finger-licking, childish nostalgic place-- and what made it that much more satisfying was that I was able to feature locally grown/raised/produced products, and satisfy my urgings-- I generally believe that cravings appear for a reason, so you should indulge and honor them and be happy. I sure am.

Recipe: Coconut-Scented Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes about 15 tasty biscuits

5 cups sifted organic unbleached all-purpose flour (measure after sifting)
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
1 tablespoon sea or kosher salt
1/2 cup organic, virgin coconut oil (cold or room temperature)
1 1/2 cups shaken farm-fresh buttermilk (if possible, otherwise use what you can get at the store)
3 tablespoons unsalted natural butter, melted (I use Kate's because it is so tasty!)

Preheat the oven to 475ºF with the rack in the middle.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Add the coconut oil, coating it with flour, then rub the mixture with your fingers until coarsely blended.

Make a well in the flour mixture, add buttermilk, stirring until a dough forms (it will be soft and sticky). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 8-10 times. Roll out dough with a floured rolling pin into a 12-inch round about 1/2-inch thick. Using a fork dipped in flour, prick all the way through about every 1/2 inch.

Cut out as many rounds as possible with a 2 1/2- to 3-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter dipped in flour (do not twist cutter).

On an ungreased heavy baking sheet, bake the biscuits, almost touching, rotating after about 6 minutes if browning unevenly. Bake until golden brown, about 12-15 minutes. Brush tops with melted butter and serve warm or at room temperature.

If you have any leftover, which is highly unlikely. Store on the counter in a dish covered with plastic wrap. They'll stay fresh-ish for about 2 days. Reheat in the oven.

03 February 2008

guest blog: don't forget to brush your teeth

Sabrina Hu is a yuppie working the corporate world in Atlanta, GA. She thinks that Bill Gates should run for some office and work his “creative capitalism” edge on sustainable enterprises. In her free time, she sits and ponders about her environmental footprint as well the as the internally displaced children and child soldiers in Uganda, while dreaming about blue skies and white beach sands.
Please contact me if you are interested in writing a topical guest blog.

Many years ago, a dear friend, Mike, made an analogy that taking care of yourself is like brushing your teeth in the morning. Mike said that “Before you (and even super heroes) go and try to take on the world every day, you should make sure that you have minty fresh breath. Taking care of yourself is something that you have to do before you take care of others or the world around.” Since then literally and figuratively, I’ve been brushing my teeth. (I’d probably be unemployed if I didn’t…)

And so in line with figuratively “brushing my teeth”, I participated in a 6-day alkalizing detox through my yoga studio. Three days of raw foods were followed by 3 days of juices. This isn’t my first time participating in this cleanse but the effects of this cleanse were a little different. The first time was about mind over body and mental strength. This cleanse was about winter time rejuvenation of my body and spirit.

The raw foods portion of the cleanse was a catered menu of various salads and cold soups. We started off each morning with an alkalizing elixir of warm water with lemon followed by a 30-minute walk, and then eating two apples in 30-minute intervals. The rest of the day, we were free to eat as much as we liked of our salads.

My first three days were amazing. I loved experiencing the raw foods and tasting things in their natural states. The catered salads were inspiring in that they showed me how things could be combined to make new salads and different combinations of veggies. Who knew that curry powder, grated carrots, pumpkin seeds and lentils would be so good? Or that broccoli and tahini mixed with garlic and onions would be so stimulating?! Everything was SO delicious!

In the juice half of the cleanse mornings started with a cleansing tea to help to clear the digestive tract, followed by a breakfast of fruit juice. Aloe juice acted as soothing mid-morning snack and carrot juice, apple juice, mixed veggie juice, and miso soup rounded out the rest of the days’ snacks and ‘meals’, and right before bed was a cup of spearmint tea.

To round out the cleanse, we had daily 2-3 hour yin yoga in the evenings, followed by dry bristle body brushes, hot salt water baths, and cold showers. These practices helped to clear toxins out of the organs, draw out impurities, improve blood circulation, and clearing out lymph nodes.

You’re probably thinking, “Oh Sabrina, you are crazy, girl. You were probably dragging all week and ready to chew on your hand.” However, quite the opposite happened. In giving my body a rest from all the time it spend digesting, it was able to take those energies and put them towards cleaning out my organs and my blood. I did drag a little the second day from the toxins releasing into my blood stream, but it quickly went away. It left me energized and alert- sometimes too energized and I couldn’t sleep. I felt rested and peaceful. I wasn’t spending so much time thinking about my next meal (and boy do I spend a lot of time thinking about food!). My mind was clear and I was able to evaluate where I was spending all of my time (thinking about food, preparing food, cleaning up, the gym). It was very introspective. In addition, my skin is now glowing. I was breaking out prior to the cleanse, and you would never know it now. Everything is soft, supple and smooth. It feels like I just left the spa! And an added bonus is weight loss of about 5 pounds. (Woo!) This really has been a rejuvenation of the mind and body as I had intended and a great way to start off the New Year.


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